Next Goal Wins. Tara Brady on the best film about the worst lit­tle na­tional soc­cer team – ever,

A new doc­u­men­tary tells the story of the world’s worst foot­ball team – and the world’s first trans­sex­ual in­ter­na­tional foot­baller. Tara Brady meets Amer­i­can Samoa’s coach and cen­tre back

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - TARA BRADY

In 2001, Amer­i­can Samoa’s at­tempts to qual­ify for the Fifa World Cup ended in a 31-0 thrash­ing at the hands of Aus­tralia – the worst de­feat ever recorded in in­ter­na­tional soc­cer, a de­feat that rewrote the rule­book. The one-sid­ed­ness of the en­counter en­sured the Oceanic zone had a pre­lim­i­nary qual­i­fy­ing round in time for the 2006 World Cup. It also con­trib­uted to Aus­tralia’s para­chute drop into the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion.

Twelve years af­ter that record-break­ing in­ter­na­tional, Amer­i­can Samoa con­tin­ued to lan­guish at the very bot­tom of the Fifa rank­ings, hav­ing scored only twice in 17 years. They needed a mir­a­cle.

En­ter Thomas Ron­gen, a gruff Dutch coach who be­gan his foot­balling ca­reer at Ajax be­fore mov­ing to the North Amer­i­can Soc­cer League, where he coached Ge­orge Best and Jo­han Cruyff, be­fore leading the U-20 US side to two suc­ces­sive world cups.

“I wanted to chal­lenge my­self,” Ron­gen tells me. “I didn’t want to think about po­ten­tial fail­ure. If you’re driven at the high­est level, you want the big­gest chal­lenges.”

But how would the softly spo­ken, oh-so-po­lite is­lan­ders cope with Ron­gen’s old-school hairdryer ef­fect? This thrilling cul­ture clash lies at the heart of Next Goal Wins, a heart-warm­ing new sports doc­u­men­tary from Bri­tish film-mak­ers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison.

The di­rec­tors were al­ready film­ing the World’s Worst Team when Ron­gen took the post; he was the only ap­pli­cant for the job. Was he dis­turbed to sud­denly be­come the star of sport­ing un­der­dog film?

“In my line of work – es­pe­cially work­ing in the United States – it’s very com­mon to have that kind of me­dia ac­cess in place. And I very quickly re­alised it was po­ten­tially a beau­ti­ful story. But I never thought I’d be at­tend­ing the Los Angeles pre­miere. I never thought I’d be sit­ting here in Lon­don with Jaiyah talk­ing to you.”

Jaiyah is Jaiyah Saelua, Amer­i­can Samoa’s tal­is­manic cen­tre back: pic­ture Roy Keane if he ran like a girl. An im­pos­si­bly stat­uesque be­ing, she’s hardly big news in Amer­i­can Samoa, which has long played home to the fa’afafine (or those who live “the way of the woman”). But un­der Ron­gen, she en­tered the record books as the world’s first trans­sex­ual in­ter­na­tional foot­baller.

They can laugh about it now. And do. But it wasn’t easy: at first Ron­gen thought she was the team masseuse. And Saelua’s ini­tial im­pres­sion of the coach was not en­tirely pos­i­tive ei­ther.

“I thought he was very loud and cocky,” she laughs. “Af­ter the first ses­sion we all said some­thing to each other about how ob­nox­ious the coach is. But right away we could see that he loves what he does. So I knew he’d help the team with our de­vel­op­ment. I knew he was good for us. I saw it as an op­por­tu­nity.”

Be­tween tour­na­ments, Jaiyah – or Johnny to her team­mates – lives as a woman and stud­ies dance and per­form­ing arts in Hawaii. Foot­ball must re­quire an en­tirely dif­fer­ent set of mus­cles, surely?

“It’s not so much a phys­i­cal thing,” she tells me. “The dis­ci­pline in dance and in soc­cer are very sim­i­lar. But I do have to ad­just my train of thought a lit­tle. I have to think tough. Dancing is soft. In foot­ball I think like a boy.”

Jaiyah’s in­clu­sion in Ron­gen’s start­ing 11 is no gim­mick. She and the World’s Worst Team do, in­deed, im­prove over the course of the film. “My big­gest re- spon­si­bil­ity was to turn that losers’ men­tal­ity into a win­ners’ men­tal­ity,” says Ron­gen. “I had to make sure we got that first vic­tory.”

In this ro­bust spirit, he quickly in­tro­duced the is­lan­ders to such non-niceties as slide tackle. He found an ex­tra man un­der the “grand­fa­ther rule”. He re­called Nicky Salapu, the goalie who watched 31 go by two cam­paigns ear­lier. And he in­cor­po­rated a tra­di­tional Samoan war­rior chant – not un­like New Zealand’s haka – into train­ing.

“It was im­por­tant to bring in that Amer­i­can Samoan war­rior spirit. Show me how to fight and I’ll show you how to win.”

While Ron­gen tough­ened up his Amer­i­can Samoan squad, they soft­ened his harder edges. Next Goal Wins chron­i­cles a kind of spir­i­tual jour­ney for the trou­bleshoot­ing coach, who took the job as a way of over­com­ing the loss of his 18-year-old daugh­ter in a car crash. It was an in­cred­i­ble jour­ney, he says.

“Beau­ti­ful is­land. Beau­ti­ful people. Great cul­ture. A great cul­ture of in­clu­sive­ness. Ev­ery­body goes to church. But in that spirit of in­clu­siv­ity. There’s no judg­ment. There are no prej­u­dices about gen­der or sex­u­al­ity. The is­lan­ders have a re­fresh­ing, orig­i­nal way of see­ing life. I’m so happy we can share that with people through the life. Be­cause the first thing you think about the place is ‘I want to share this with ev­ery­one’.”

Both Jaiyah Saelua and Thomas Ron­gen are hop­ing for an­other crack at rep­re­sent­ing the na­tion of Amer­i­can Samoa: “I would love to,” says Ron­gen. “There’s still great un­tapped talent there. The 2018 World Cup in Rus­sia: that’s our goal. That would be the per­fect end to a per­fect story.”

Un­til then, Jaiyah is still wait­ing for a ma­jor de­signer to an­swer her on­screen plea for red­car­pet friendly frocks.

“I’ve had to buy my own,” she says. “Maybe it’s be­cause I look ter­ri­ble in the film.”

She re­ally doesn’t.

NEXT GOAL WINS Di­rected by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. Fea­tur­ing Thomas Ron­gen, Nicky Salapu, Jaiyah Saelua Club, IFI, Dublin, 96 min

What comes un­der un­der­dog? This doc­u­men­tary chron­i­cles Amer­i­can Samoa’s 2014 World Cup cam­paign. We say cam­paign: we mean pre­lim­i­nary round matches. The same team made foot­balling his­tory and the planet’s back pages when their ef­forts to qual­ify for 2002 pro­duced a se­ries of cat­a­strophic re­sults, in­clud­ing a whop­ping 31-goal de­feat by Aus­tralia.

At the be­gin­ning of Next Goal Wins, the World’s of­fi­cial Worst Team are tied for 204th and last in the Fifa rank­ings, and have been outscored 229-12 since start­ing in­ter­na­tional play in 1994. Ouch.

En­ter Dutch coach Thomas Ron­gen, a loud, sweary, smok­ing guv’nor of the old school: pic­ture an Am­s­ter­dammer Brian Clough in cargo pants. Player-turned-coach Ron­gen has a re­spectable track record in North Amer­i­can foot­ball dat­ing back to the late 1970s. Can he knock the good-na­tured, kind­hearted, mostly am­a­teur Amer­i­can Samoan side into shape? Will they ever win a game? Will they ever mas­ter the slide tackle?

This en­gag­ing, feel-good sports doc is com­mend­ably re­spect­ful of its sub­jects. The film-mak­ers are keen to re­mind us that sor­row­ful goal­keeper Nicky Salapu – who stood in goal dur­ing that fateful match against Aus­tralia – is more than a comic meme.

There is, more­over, a pleas­ing melan­choly to coun­ter­act the punch-the-air sport­ing dra­mat­ics. Ron­gen, we learn, has lost his 18-year-old daugh­ter in a car crash. Most of the ter­ri­tory’s young men join the mil­i­tary and leave as soon as they are old enough. The re­gion was badly af­fected by the 2009 earthquake and tsunami.

Against all that, the lo­cals are cheer­ingly pos­i­tive. The weather is balmy. The is­lan­ders talk re­peat­edly about com­mu­nity and in­clu­siv­ity. In this spirit, even at the bot­tom of the Fifa pile, they gen­uinely seem to cher­ish and cel­e­brate their na­tional squad. How fit­ting that fab­u­lous cen­tre back Jaiyah Saelua – Fifa’s first trans­gen­der player – emerges as a key fig­ure in Ron­gen’s team.

’Tis the sea­son for over use of sport­ing cliches not­ing the ro­mance of the World Cup. But if you can’t find it in Next Goal Wins, you’re not go­ing to find it any­where.

De­fender Jaiyah Saelua (near left) pre­pares for the crunch tie against Tonga at the 2014 World Cup qual­i­fiers. Be­low: Saelua with team­mate Nicky Salapu and coach Thomas

Ron­gens

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